“They’re trying everything and anything. It’s helping to make an exciting theater town,” he says.
Other companies that formed to play at Fringe — including Pointless Theatre, whose “The Super Spectacular Dada Adventures of Hugo Ball” won Best Experimental at Fringe this year, and Banished Productions, which produced the “Tactile Dinner Car,” a theatrical culinary experience — are looking to expand beyond the festival, says Brienza. Fringe plans to more frequently rent its Shop at Fort Fringe space near Chinatown to support small theaters.
Another way for small theater to grow is under the umbrella of a mentor, something Suilebhan hopes to see more of. Mentored by Round House Theatre, Forum has become the biggest of the small theaters in both audience and critical acclaim.
“The whole idea of them tackling ‘Angels in America,’ people would think they’re crazy. . . . They do stuff that stretches them artistically,” says Schaeffer.
“Everyone who’s interested in theater should see [Forum] plays,” said Karen Zacarias, a resident playwright at Arena Stage. “They’re an education in what’s cutting edge.”
Round House’s Silver Spring theater was looking for an artistic partner, and Dove won Forum the position. The deal allows Forum to produce three full-run shows and a few smaller events in the space each year for five years in exchange for half of the ticket sales. Forum pays no rent, and because it doesn’t have to bounce around, it’s able to take on ambitious projects, grow an audience and plan better with designers.
“It’s a really good model for larger theater companies,” says Dove. “We’re bringing in audience members who don’t go to Round House, but they go to [our shows in] the Round House space and hear about their shows. Our audience tends to be younger and more diverse.”
It may be a while before more relationships like Forum’s can emerge, though: There is a disconnect between many of the city’s largest theaters and its smallest. When The Washington Post asked the leaders of several D.C. theaters to talk about the small-theater scene, many declined because they had not seen many productions. Many are more likely to feel a kinship with similar-size theaters in other cities than smaller ones here.
“There’s more comparable situations and things that both are dealing with that they can help each other,” says Schaeffer.
But he agrees that mentoring goes a long way: “I think that the larger theaters support and embrace the younger theaters because we all came from there.”
For instance, Woolly Mammoth, which moved into a new building in 2005, began its first season in 1980 in a church hall near Metro Center. Some of the strongest small companies could be the next Woolly Mammoth in 15 years. “All of these companies have the talent and the vision and are staking out an interesting market,” says Zacarias. “It’s really an open race right now.”